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November 20, 2018

Penn study links social media use as a cause of depression and loneliness

After restricting social media use to 10 minutes per day, a significant improvement in mood was reported

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We all know that social media has the power to make you feel terrible about yourself if you let it, but a new study out of the University of Pennsylvania is the first to identify a causal link between time spent on social media and depression.

In fact, researchers found that in those who drastically cut down their social media use an improved mood and outlook on life occurred.

The study, “No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression,” is being published by the peer-reviewed Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Market Watch reports. To begin collecting data, researchers studied 143 undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania over two semesters. Using seven different established scales, researchers tested participants mood and sense of well-being.

Half of the participants carried on using social media sites as normal, while the other half were restricted to ten minutes per day for each of the three most popular sites for the age group, including Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. To ensure the accuracy of this limitation, use was tracked through regular screen shots from the participants’ phones showing battery data.


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The results, as one could expect, found that those who limited their social media use saw “clinically significant” decrease in depression and in loneliness over the course of the study. However, those in the so-called “control” group, who did not change their social media behavior, saw no improvement.

The findings of this study are interesting because it is known that people tend to look toward social media when they’re lonely, as a way of making a connection, but it can actually backfire, making them more depressed and more lonely.

The lead researcher of the study, University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Melissa Hunt offers two main theories for why social media makes people depressed and lonely: "The first is 'downward social comparison.' You read your friends’ timelines. They’re deliberately putting on a show to make their lives look wonderful. The result: You’re more likely to think your life sucks in comparison, says Hunt. The second reason: FOMO, or "Fear of Missing Out," Market Watch reports.

In this study, researchers took a very reasonable approach to social media use — they asked participants to cut down their use instead of ceasing it altogether, which would be very difficult and likely unsuccessful in the modern world. “It’s significant that restricting use to ten minutes per site per day helped those with depression so much. You don’t have to give it up altogether to feel better,” Hunt explains.

One slight limitation of the study is that it was restricted to undergraduates. Whether social media use affects older groups is unclear at this time. However, many participants who began the study with moderate clinical depression finished just a few weeks later with very mild symptoms, according to researchers — and that definitely constitutes as a win for the study.

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